The Story of WHER, America’s Pioneering, First All-Woman Radio Station (1955)

Sam Phillips changed the course of music history with his label Sun Records, which gave us Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison and essentially the second half of the 20th Century’s pop culture. But he had a second act in a life where most people would have rested on their laurels. Although not as well known, Phillips helped the course of female liberation when he founded the country’s first all-female radio station WHER in 1955, bought with the money he received from selling Presley’s recording contract.

In this intriguing and history-packed two-part audio documentary from Fugitive Waves, we hear from Phillips and many of the disc jockeys who worked at the Memphis station that broadcast from the third-ever Holiday Inn built in the country.

Philips thought the hotel concept was pretty cool and wanted to be associated with its modern design. The studio, called “the Doll Bin,” was tiny, pink and purple and decorated with bras and panties hanging from a clothesline. “1000 Beautiful Watts” was the slogan, and though, yes, that’s a bit cloying to modern ears, in 1955 it was one of the first cracks in the wall of male media dominance.

For an example of the sexism of the time, the podcast plays an except from another Memphis radio station, of Kitty Kelly interviewing musician and composer Sigmund Romberg, who uses the live interview as a chance to drool over his host.

Phillips created the station out of his love of radio and his curiosity over hearing women’s voices on the airwaves. His wife Becky was one of the first DJs at WHER and she, along with many of the women who worked there, narrate the tale. Women ran the entire operation from the voice to the engineer booth. Phillips was used to taking in women with no experience, because he had done the same thing at Sun Records.

WHER lasted through 1973, only two years after the National Press Club opened its membership to women. Ironically, as women claimed more and more rights, men began to work at the station on and off air.

The full documentary is less than an hour and worth the listen, as it proves that one of the volleys in the battle for women’s liberation came not from either of the coasts of America, but right from the heartland.

The Kitchen Sisters podcast–the creator of the episode above–is featured in our collection, The 150 Best Podcasts to Enrich Your Mind

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

Great “Filmumentaries” Take You Inside the Making of Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark & Jaws

Jamie Benning, an Englishman who edits live television broadcasts of auto races by day, spends all his nights pursuing his appreciation for Hollywood blockbusters of the 1970s and 80s — or at least I assume he does, given how much effort and enthusiasm obviously goes into his signature “filmumentaries,” long-form videos on the making of his favorite movies, packed with all the behind-the-scenes footage, storyboards, alternate takes, interviews, and every other bit and piece of media pertaining to the production on which he can lay his hands. Earlier this year, we featured his filmumentaries on the original Star Wars trilogy; today, we give you his filmumentarization of the work of Steven Spielberg, specifically Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Even casual filmgoers will recognize these movies, and they’ll feel, shortly after pressing play on Benning’s Inside Jaws and Raiding the Lost Ark, as if they’ve just settled in to watch them again, though they’ll see them as they never have before. Serious film fans will, as the form of the filmumentary emerges, recognize the basis of the concept. Described as “visual commentaries,” these productions take the concept of the commentary track and step it up considerably, overlaying the original film’s soundtrack with the words of a veritable chorus of those who worked on it — actors (even some not ultimately cast), crew members, designers, producers, hangers-around — sourced and sometimes even recorded by Benning.

The lineup even includes Spielberg himself, who famously doesn’t record commentary tracks, but whose interviews given over the decades Benning credibly repurposes into their form. As we hear all this while watching these movies we know so well, we also see all manner of relevant footage related to their making, just the sort of avenue of cinephilic pleasure I once imagined the DVD player’s “angle” button would open up. The facts also keep flowing, in Raiding the Lost Ark, in the form of onscreen text, just like those older DVD releases that offered a separate subtitle track with pop-up production notes. Sample: “Due to difficult terrain, the donkeys had to be airlifted by helicopter to the shooting location.”

Spielberg has explained his refusal to do commentaries in terms of his reluctance to break the illusion he and his collaborators work so hard to create in their movies — a fair concern, but when I immerse myself in the rich oscillation between and mixture of illusion and reality, fiction and fact, movies and their making, the story and the stories behind pioneered by Benning’s filmumentaries, I feel ready to see a few more illusions so fascinatingly broken.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The First Adult Coloring Book: See the Subversive Executive Coloring Book From 1961

Exec Coloring 1

Since the Harry Potter craze began, we’ve seen young adult fiction gain massive popularity with adults, in ways some critics have lamented as a trend that infantilizes the buying public. (Some say the same about superhero films and adult fans of boy bands). Katie Couric identified the phenomenon as “the rise of so-called Peter Pan activities,” throwing “adult summer camps and Lego leagues” in the mix. Critics of Peter Panism can add another trend to their battery of examples: the rise of the adult coloring book. Business Insider reported in April that “in Britain, four out of the top 10 Amazon bestsellers are coloring (or colouring, as the Brits insist) books for adults.” Currently, Amazon’s top 20 bestsellers for 2015 includes three adult coloring books. Among so many other consumer signs and portents, adult coloring books may indeed herald a coming apocalypse, at least for Russell Brand, who wonders, “What has turned us into terrified divs that want to live in childish stupors?”

Well, whether “childish,” art therapy or “Zen,” adult coloring books meet a need millions of grown-ups have to soothe their jangled nerves, and it seems almost cruel to mock people so anxiety-ridden they’ve returned to kindergarten remedies. Then again, it’s worth noting, as Smithsonian did recently, “the adult coloring concept is not exactly new.”

It dates back to the 1960s, when “bookstores exploded” with coloring books geared exclusively toward adults. The difference between then and now lies in the fact that those books were adult in content as well as form—“satirical and subversive,” offering “a mocking look at American society.” The first of these, The Executive Coloring Book, arrived in 1961, followed by The John Birch Society Coloring Book and many similar titles “satirizing conformism, John F. Kennedy and the Soviet Union,” among other targets. And yet, “Unlike the adult coloring books flying off the shelves today,” Smithsonian writes, “these books were not created with the intention to be colored in.”

Exec Coloring 2

Take the two pages from The Executive Coloring Book above. The first, at the top, shows us our executive preparing for his day with the caption “THIS IS MY SUIT. Color it gray or I will lose my job.” Above, a line of identical executives boards a train. Hammering home the point, we’re told “THIS IS MY TRAIN. It takes me to my office every day. You meet lots of interesting people on the train. Color them all gray.” A notable exception to these dreary instructions, below, tells us “THIS IS MY PILL. It is round. It is pink. It makes me not care. Watch me take my round, pink pill… and not care.” The contents of the pill may have changed, but the medicated worker bee is still very much with us, though the gray flannel suit is a thing of the past.

Exec Coloring 3

Rather than giving its target audience a chance to become kids again, The Executive Coloring Book pokes fun at the ways in which pampered executives of the Mad Men-era could themselves be shallow manchildren. One page, below, shows the executive’s secretary with the caption “THIS IS MY SECRETARY. I hate her. She is mean. I used to have a soft, round lady. But my wife called her papa.” Another (bottom), reminiscent of the business card scene in American Psycho, shows us the executive’s important phone: “THIS IS MY TELEPHONE. It has five buttons. Count them. One, two, three, four, five. Five buttons. How many buttons does your telephone have? Mine has five.”

Exec Coloring 4

From its faux-leather cover to its final page of business-speak gibberish, the whole thing is a masterfully simple, self-contained piece of conceptual art. The next publication by the same authors, The John Birch Coloring Book, made its intentions a little more obvious. A Sunday Herald review quotes from its introduction: “This book is respectfully dedicated to Dwight D. Eisenhower and many other loyal Americans who have been maligned by extremist groups.” One caption reads “This is our eagle. We cut off his left wing. Now he is an all American eagle. But he flies only in circles.” The “Birchers will have to learn to smile,” writes the reviewer, as the book “spare[s] not their feelings.” Not likely. Rather than selling relaxation, the adult coloring books of the 60s were “engaged,” wrote Milton Bracker in a 1962 New York Times review, “in political warfare.”

Exec Coloring 5

via Smithsonian and Ad to the Bone

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Sartre Writes a Tribute to Camus After His Friend-Turned-Rival Dies in a Tragic Car Crash: “There Is an Unbearable Absurdity in His Death”

The friendship of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus ended, famously, in 1951. That year, increasingly fractious political tensions between the two philosopher-writers came to a head over the publication of Camus’ The Rebel, a book-length essay that marked a departure from revolutionary thought and a turn toward a more pragmatic individualism (as well as recalling the anarcho-syndicalism Camus had embraced in the 30s). The doctrinaire Sartre and his intellectual coterie took exception, and while Sartre further pursued a Marxist political program, informed by a critique of racism and colonialism, Camus confronted the absurd; he “begins to sound more like Samuel Beckett,” writes Andy Martin at the New York Times’ philosophy blog, “all alone, in the night, between continents, far away from everything.”

The two split not only over ideas, however: after the war, Camus became increasingly disillusioned with Stalin’s totalitarian Soviet rule, while Sartre made what Camus considered weak attempts to defend or excuse the regime’s crimes. At first, writes Volker Hage in Der Spiegel, their disagreements were “limited to a relatively small group of intellectuals.” Then Sartre published Francis Jeanson’s scathing review of The Rebel in the journal Sartre founded in 1945, Les Temps Modernes. (See Jeanson discuss the review in the video interview below, excerpted from the short documentary on Sartre and Camus at the top of the post). Camus, Hage writes, “made the mistake of sending a long rejoinder. What followed was a tragic dissolution of what had once been a friendship.”

Sartre made his final kiss-off very public, printing in Les Temps Modernes a “merciless” response, “insidious and malicious, yet also a magnificent masterpiece of personal polemics.” Almost ten years later, in 1960, Camus was killed in a car accident at the age of 46. Though the two never formally reconciled, Sartre penned a heartfelt tribute to his former friend in The Reporter that contained none of the vitriol of his past condemnations. Instead, he describes their falling out in the terms one might use for a former lover:

He and I had quarreled. A quarrel doesn’t matter — even if those who quarrel never see each other again — just another way of living together without losing sight of one another in the narrow little world that is allotted us. It didn’t keep me from thinking of him, from feeling that his eyes were on the book or newspaper I was reading and wondering: “What does he think of it? What does he think of it at this moment?”

Sartre confesses his uneasiness with Camus’ moody silence, “which according to events and my mood I considered sometimes too cautious and sometimes too painful.” It was a silence that seemingly overtook Camus in his final years as he retreated from public life, and though Camus’ fierce individualism lay at the heart of their falling-out, Sartre wrote in deep appreciation of his friend and antagonist’s solitude and stubborn resoluteness:

He represented in our time the latest example of that long line of moralistes whose works constitute perhaps the most original element in French letters. His obstinate humanism, narrow and pure, austere and sensual, waged an uncertain war against the massive and formless events of the time. But on the other hand through his dogged rejections he reaffirmed, at the heart of our epoch, against the Machiavellians and against the Idol of realism, the existence of the moral issue.

In a way, he was that resolute affirmation. Anyone who read or reflected encountered the human values he held in his fist; he questioned the political act. One had to avoid him or fight him-he was indispensable to that tension which makes intellectual life what it is.

Camus’ “silence,” the theme of Sartre’s tribute, “had something positive about it.” The former harshness of Sartre’s critiques softens as he chides Camus’ refusal “to leave the safe ground of morality and venture on the uncertain paths of practicality.” Camus’ confrontation with the Absurd, writes Sartre, with “the conflicts he kept hidden… both requires and condemns revolt.”

At the bitter end of their friendship, Sartre viciously condemned the contradictions of Camus’ political thought as the product of personal failings, telling him, “You have become the victim of an excessive sullenness that masks your internal problems. Sooner or later, someone would have told you, so it might as well be me.” In his final tribute to Camus, he returns to this idea, in much different language, writing that, at the age of 20, Camus had become “suddenly afflicted with a malady that upset his whole life”; he had “discovered the Absurd—the senseless negation of man.” Rather than succumbing, however—Sartre writes—Camus “became accustomed to it, he thought out his unbearable condition, he came through.”

After the car accident, Sartre acknowledged Camus’ fierce individualism and principle in the face of life’s absurdity as an existential triumph rather than a handicap: “We shall recognize in that work and in the life that is inseparable from it the pure and victorious attempt of one man to snatch every instant of his existence from his future death.”

Read the full tribute essay in a downloadable PDF format here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Discover The Music Vault: A Massive YouTube Archive of 22,000 Live Concert Videos

Last summer, we highlighted an almost unbelievably rich resource for music fans: the Music Vault, a Youtube archive of 22,000 live concert videos from a range of artists, spanning about four decades into the present. In a time of soaring ticket prices, the Music Vault allows us to catch a show at home for free, and to see bands we missed in their heyday perform on stages around the world. Last summer, I wrote, “enjoy revisiting the glory days and rest assured, they aren’t going away anytime soon.” But I spoke too soon, as many Music Vault videos (there were only 13,000 then) began disappearing, along with the nostalgia and hip currency they offered. Well, now they’re back up and running, and let’s hope it’s for good.

Unsurprisingly—given its association with Wolfgang’s Vault, a restoration and archive project that began with the collection of legendary concert promoter Bill Graham—the Music Vault’s storehouse includes perhaps more Grateful Dead material than anything else, like the nearly six hour Winterland concert above from 1978. Check out the intro interview with now Senator, then comedian Al Franken, doing some political humor for radio station KSAN. (And see Franken do another Dead intro skit in 1980 at Radio City Music Hall here.) There’s so much Grateful Dead in fact, they get their own channel. You’ll also find plenty more live classic rock shows from Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Van Morrison, the StonesJoe Cocker, and more. (Check out this rare show from a pre-Van Halen Sammy Hagar in 1978.)

If that’s not what you’re into, there’s also plenty of punk and new wave, like the classic Talking Heads performance of “Life During Wartime” above at the Capitol Theatre from 1980 (see the complete concert here). You can also catch Iggy Pop in ’86, Blondie in ’79, the Ramones in ’78, Prince in ’82, or Green Day in ’94. You don’t get the cred from saying you were there, whatever that’s worth, but you get the thrill of seeing these artists in their prime, (almost) live and direct. Fancy more contemporary fare? Check out the New Music Discovery channel with live performances from current acts, curated by Daytrotter and Paste Magazine. Dig funk, soul, and reggae? They’ve got you covered, with shows from Parliament-Funkadelic, Jimmy Cliff, Curtis Mayfield, and many more. See Bob Marley and the Wailers do a stellar rendition of “No Woman, No Cry” at the Oakland Auditorium in 1979, below.

More of a jazz cat? No worries, Music Vault has an extensive jazz channel featuring everyone from Miles Davis to Herbie Hancock to Tony Bennet, and including newer artists like vocalist Lizz Wright and trio The Bad Plus. (They’ve even got a surprising performance from Orange is the New Black’s Lea DeLaria at the Newport Jazz Festival in 2002.) The Music Vault also hosts classic music documentaries and interviews, like the Rolling Stones 1976 European Tour documentary below. (Other highlights include documentary Last Days at the Fillmore and a 1974 interview with Bill Graham.) Whatever your thing is, you’ll probably find a little bit, or a lot, of it in this enormous database of live concert film and video and other features (though almost no pop, r&b, or hip-hop). If you don’t, check back later. The Music Vault promises to add new “hand-curated” concert videos daily.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear Jeremy Irons Read T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Naming of Cats’ (For a Limited Time)

Briefly noted: For a limited time (for the next 23 days, to be precise), you can hear Jeremy Irons reading “The Naming of Cats,” a poem from T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939). The poem will certainly sound familiar to anyone who has ever seen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Cats.

As a bonus, if you revisit this post in our archive, you can hear Eliot, himself, reading poems from the very same collection. And this other Open Culture post features Eliot’s own cover design for Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. What angle haven’t we covered?

The clip above comes courtesy of BBC Radio 4.

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How to Get Started: John Cage’s Approach to Starting the Difficult Creative Process

john cage 65 hours

Image by WikiArt, via Wikimedia Commons

You know what they say: eighty percent of the work you do on a project, you do getting the last twenty percent of that project right. But most of that other twenty percent of the work must go toward getting started in the first place; you’ve got to get over a pretty big hill just to get to the point of writing the first sentence, painting the first stroke, shooting the first shot, or playing the first chords. Avant-garde composer John Cage knew well the challenges of just getting started, and his thoughts on the subject motivated him, toward the end of his career, to do the written, performed, and recorded project we feature today, How to Get Started.

Cage himself only put on How to Get Started once, at an international conference on sound design at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch on August 31, 1989. It worked like this: he brought with him ten note cards, each of which contained notes for a particular “idea” he wanted to talk about. On went a tape recorder, and he began speaking improvisationally about the first idea. Then he flipped to the next card, and as he talked about its idea, the recording of the first one played in the background. He continued with this procedure until, by the tenth idea on the tenth card, he had his impromptu speeches on all nine previous ideas playing simultaneously behind him. You can get an idea of what his readings sounded like in the three clips (from embedded here [first, second, third].

The ten ideas Cage jotted down on his notecards come inspired by, and inspired him to discuss further, his own creative experiences. In the first, he describes a new compositional process that came to him in a dream, which involves crumpling a score into a ball and unfolding it again. In the third, he thinks back to his work Roaratorio, an Irish circus on Finnegans Wake, which converted Joyce’s novel into music, and imagines a way forward that would involve turning into music not one book at a time but several. In the fifth, he references Marcel Duchamp’s “The Creative Act,” which brought home for him the notion of how audiences “finish the work by listening,” which led to his creating works of “musical sculpture,” including one particularly memorable example involving “between 150 and 200” Yugoslavian high school students, all playing their instruments in different places.

Cage’s other stories of creative epiphany in How to Get Started involve a trip to an anechoic chamber; finding out what made one dance performance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts so “tawdry, shabby, miserable”; discovering the artist’s “inner clock” in Leningrad; and how he works around what no less a musical mind than Arnold Schoenberg diagnosed as his absent sense of harmony. You can read a transcript of all of them in a PDF of How to Get Started‘s companion booklet. And depending upon how inspired you find yourself (or how close you live to Philadelphia), you might consider making the trip to the Slought Foundation, who have built a room specially designed for the piece. You might not come out of it feeling like you’ve absorbed all the creativity of John Cage, but he himself points us toward the important thing: not the amorphous quality of creativity, but the action of getting started.

via Monoskop

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hear Tom Lehrer Sing the Names of 102 Chemical Elements to the Tune of Gilbert & Sullivan

Tom Lehrer earned a BA and MA in mathematics from Harvard during the late 1940s, then taught math courses at MIT, Harvard, Wellesley, and UC-Santa Cruz. Math was his vocation. But, all along, Lehrer nurtured an interest in music. And, by the mid 1950s, he became best known for his satirical songs that touched on sometimes political, sometimes academic themes.

Today we’re presenting one of his classics: “The Elements.” Recorded in 1959, the song features Lehrer reciting the names of the 102 chemical elements known at the time (we now have 115), and it’s all sung to the tune of Major-General’s Song from The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan. You can hear a studio version below, and watch a nice live version taped in Copenhagen, Denmark, in September 1967.

Decades later, this classic piece of “Tomfoolery” stays with us, popping up here and there in popular culture. For example, Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame) performed Lehrer’s song on the BBC’s Graham Norton Show in 2010. Enjoy.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.